With a storied line of crime procedurals under his belt ranging from a guest shot on Miami Vice and a major role on L.A. Law to starring in NYPD Blue and the late lamented Bluff City Law, Jimmy Smits wasn’t looking to go back down that path. That is, until Emmy Award-winning producer and director William Finkelstein, who knew Smits from back in the L.A. Law/NYPD Blue days, hipped the native New Yorker to the project the former was working on for CBS. All it took was mentioning where the neighborhood the show was going to be based in to catch Smits’ attention.
“William Finklestein and I were having conversations, because we keep in touch,” Smits shared. “He was getting ready to do a cop show and it kind of came on my radar specifically because of all the stuff that has transpired during COVID-19 with regards to this kind of spotlight on law enforcement transgressions and all of that. I told him good luck with that and it was beautiful to have this woman’s voice as the driving force behind this particular precinct. And the whole thing about community policing and then he said it was set in a section of New York called East New York that not too many people know about. I told him to stop right there because that was my Wonder Years place. When I came back from living a couple of years in Puerto Rico, I was going to school [in East New York]. Pretty much my junior high school, high school and first years of college were all in that neighborhood. That’s where my first child was born, when I started going to college and making the choice to become an actor. All of those things happened in East New York so I have an affinity for it.”
Smits plays veteran two-star Chief John Suarez who serves as a mentor to Amanda Warren’s Deputy Inspector Regina Haywood, whose character was recently promoted o head up East New York’s 74th Precinct. Rounding out the cast are a number of familiar faces (Rubin Santiago-Hudson’s officer Marvin Sandeford and Richard Kind’s Captain Stan Yenko) and new talent (Elizabeth Rodriguez’s Detective Crystal Morales and Olivia Luccardi’s officer Brandy Quinn). The driving narratives for East New York revolve around the complex relationship between law enforcement and local citizens in a lower income community of color. The combination of a talented cast and character-driven storylines were irresistible to Smits with the title locale being the deciding factor.
“For me, if you don’t have the character element in [a project] then I don’t want to see it,” Smits explained. “The stars felt like they aligned in regards to what’s happening with law enforcement and what’s been happening in New York along with women empowerment and having a character who is really a strong voice. We’ve come up with this ensemble of actors that is really tight and wonderful, but the characters are really compelling, unique and they each have their own spin on [the storylines]. It felt like something I really wanted to be a part of. And also for my old neighborhood—to kind of give props to it and give back in a way. That’s why I’m on this show.”
Having fallen in love with the art of acting, Smits was more than happy to share those talents that helped shape his career trajectory.
Raúl Juliá (March 9, 1940 to October 24, 1994)
“He was a brilliant, sanguine force of nature in terms of his acting ability. But the fact that he came from the place that my moms came from and his first language was Spanish. And he loved the classics. All of those things influenced me in terms of making a choice and me being able to see him out there working like that. It influenced me with regards to becoming an actor myself. He’s tops on the list.”
James Earl Jones (January 17, 1931 to present)
“He is somebody that has broken barriers and has an immense love for the theater. I admire the work he’s done on film and through the years, he’s had a sustaining career.”
Katharine Hepburn (May 12, 1907 to June 29, 2003)
Rita Moreno (December 11, 2011 to present)
“Both of them in terms of powerful women who have come from minority/disadvantaged communities. Because of their ethnicity and gender, they’ve had to work twice as hard [to succeed]. That energy is fascinating to me.”
Peter Brook (March 21, 1925 to July 3, 2022)
“One day a director—who is very famous in the theater world named Peter Brook, came to this community group I was involved with as a kid. He had this international group of actors from Africa, a Nordic-looking woman, a Japanese kabuki actor and kind of created an international language of theater. [Ed. Note: International Centre for Theatre Research]. It fascinated me that theater has such power and it fermented for this teenager at the time—to see if I could really do this as a profession. A light went on in terms of the power of physicality, space and telling stories. That moment really influenced me. It’s like a marker for me.”
Gregory Peck (April 5, 1916 to June 12, 2003)
“I did this film called Old Gringo and it was another kind of marker for me. Greg became a mentor and a friend. He was someone whose activism, along with Jane Fonda’s, was something I looked at. Along with the way he carried his life and approached his feelings about the artist’s ability to enlighten while doing his work at the same time. It touched me in so many different ways.”
East New York airs on CBS on Sunday nights. Check local listings for times.